Child's Prayer with a Side
Order of Peas
© Copyright 2021 by Desiree Kendrick
Photo from the author.
I was barely five, I landed in the hospital with pneumonia. As a
child, I didn’t have any concept of how concerned my parents
were about my health. I was very ill. Although my parents and older
siblings filled me in later about details of this event, my memories
are simpler. This is what I remember from a child’s sightline.
“You didn’t eat your peas.” The voice was mean. She was a meanie. A tattletale dressed in a white uniform. I didn’t like her cold hands or her pointed nose. I didn’t like her peas.
“You need to eat your peas,” she said. “Vegetables give you strength and you want to get strong don’t you?” Her boney fingers lifted my arm.
She was always holding my wrist, trying to be my friend. I had an entire bedroom at home full of friends. The pink kitty cat under the dresser shared space with the purple bear. They didn’t complain about the dust bunnies or the orphaned sock puppets. My dolls were perfect friends. They didn’t talk back, scold me for my tangled hair or sneer when I forgot to brush my teeth. My younger brother was my friend. He followed me around like a groupie. Or was it a bodyguard? Either way, he elbowed his way to always sit beside me. He taste-tested my food: his grabby fingers often stole cookies off my plate. I didn’t mind. It was easier to play nice than fight with him. When Sophie, my older sister babysat, she hated his temper tantrums. He’d scream. His face would turn red and glass bowls would twirl around the kitchen. Twenty minutes later his splotchy face was all smiles. The two of us would make Plasticine-clay people. Mine were too wimpy to stand up straight.
“If you get stronger you can go home with your mum and dad.” Meanie nurse babbled like the weekly housekeeper lady who cleaned our house. “You want to get strong don’t you?” she asked.
Of course I wanted to go home but Mummy and Daddy came every day to visit me. Sometimes I would wake up and Mummy was right there, sitting in a chair beside the bed. I didn’t like the bed. It had bars like my baby sister’s playpen. I wasn’t a baby. Mummy should have told them I’m not the baby. I didn’t like the bed and I didn’t like the peas.
“The doctor will be coming soon. He’ll listen to your heart and lungs.” She peered at me, and then moved away from the bed with the railing. She wrote something on a board before turning to the little boy across the room.
His bed was identical to mine. We each had a pasty-white wall and a small bedside table with one lonely chair that our mother’s took turns scraping against the lino to pull up to the beds. The chair legs dragged each time like a toy train; certain of its destination, yet slow in making the journey. I hoped Mummy would arrive soon and sit in the chair.
I never spoke to the boy and he never spoke to me. We alternated wheezing and coughing and getting a turn with the spray machine. The hot air smelled like the lotion Mummy rubbed on my chest at night. Burying my head in the blanket I tried to remember the aromas of home. I searched my blanket for the yellowish stain where Mummy’s chicken curry and rice had spilled. Why couldn’t I have that for supper instead of lumpy potatoes and chewy brown stuff and those ugly green peas! It hurt to breathe and I gasped as I tried to remember the scent of my father’s scratchy face and that ointment Mummy rubbed on his back. I sucked the silky edge of my blanket, searching for a memory; anything to let me escape Meanie’s harsh voice.
“Johnny ate all his peas. He’s a good boy. He’s going to get better. He’s going home soon.”
I rolled away, turning my back to the good little boy and Meanie nurse. Before I got sick, I went to Church every Sunday. The priest told me to be good. I never lied to my parents, never took candy without asking, and I said my prayers right before bedtime. My baby sister cried half the night. I was good. I let my brother play with my toys. Well, most of the time I let Stephen play with my toys.
Slipping my hand under the pillow, my fingertips grazed the Valentines my mother had left me. My older siblings had made pretty lace hearts and red velvet cards. I especially liked the angel with the sling shot. The angel had short curly hair and was smiling. Maybe it was David. I’d heard that David slayed Goliath. The giant was a meanie. David was a good angel. Or perhaps it was a girl angel posing on the card. Girls are sugar and spice and everything nice. My nursery-rhyme book said so. I was good.
Heavy footsteps interrupted my daydreaming. I’d heard those steps before. My eyes scrunched shut. Don’t wake me. If my dolls could fake sleep then I could too. Maybe he wouldn’t poke me or have Meanie stick that metal thermometer in my mouth. I stroked the Valentine under my pillow and prayed he’d go away.
He came to my bed first. “I understand you didn’t eat your peas.” His voice was soft, not harsh like Meanie’s. His hand caressed the shoulder of my hospital gown. Their grown-up voices somersaulted into whispers. They stepped away from the bed.
Across the room, the little boy’s heavy breathing picked up speed. I opened one eye and peeked. The doctor placed his dangly tie on the boy’s chest.
Meanie nurse scribbled on her board. “He had a bad night.”
“Johnny, you’ve been brave. I’m going to prescribe an extra Jell-O for dessert. You like Jell-O?”
Johnny coughed and coughed. I liked Jell-O. How come he got treats and I got slimy peas? I closed my eyes tight. I prayed for Mummy and Daddy to visit.
I don’t remember when the sun turned off its light switch. The room was dark. There was a yellow glow coming from the corner. A hanging mobile cast dancing stickpin shapes on the wall opposite my bed. Johnny whimpered in his sleep. Mummy walked into the room. She pushed the chair to my bedside. Usually she wore red lipstick but this time her lips were bare. Her hair looked frizzy.
“Let’s whisper so we don’t wake your roommate,” she said, reaching for my hand. “Daddy’s with your brother. They’ll be here soon.” She shook her head, suggesting my younger sibling was in trouble.
At the mention of Stephen I perked up. Was he building blanket forts without me? He generally held the flashlight that illuminated our secret hideaway. He was my best friend, if little brothers are allowed to be BFFs with older sisters.
“You missed all the commotion at home,” she said. “I was giving the baby her bottle. Sophie was watching Stephen. Suddenly a ruckus came from my bedroom. I found Sophie banging her fist on our bathroom door.”
‘Let me in! Let me in!’ she shrieked, her face wet with tears.’
“Your brother decided he wanted to visit you,” Mummy said. “He pulled a travel bag out of the closet and went into the bathroom to find his toothbrush.” Her bottom lip trembled. She closed her eyelids briefly and I wondered if she was praying. “That silly boy shut the bathroom door and then opened the vanity drawer. He blocked the door from the inside.” Her voice jumped from whisper to yelp. “Sophie was screaming and banging on the door. Stephen said he was packing his stuff to have a sleepover with you. She kept shouting that he’d swallowed something in the bathroom. I could smell the medicinal stench. He started sobbing. The baby started crying. It took forever to get him to close the drawer so we could open the door.” Mummy pressed my hand and I squeezed back.
Daddy entered the room, with my brother firmly attached to his side. He looked grumpy. Tired, like when he worked late at night after a long day teaching. Behind him stood the doctor with his hands stuffed in his white coat pockets.
“Your son is fine,” said the doctor. His bushy eyebrows looked scary in the dimmed lighting. “He didn’t swallow the ointment. It’s possible he became agitated with everyone yelling at him.” He turned to my mother. “You need to ensure dangerous liquids and medicines are stored safely away from youngsters. Little children can’t tell the difference between an arthritic liniment and toothpaste. A responsible mother knows these things. When you go home, I suggest you double check all your cupboards.”
I clung to my blanket. The doctor sounded like Meanie nurse. Mummy nodded after her scolding. She clasped her hands in her lap.
Daddy lifted Stephen up so he could see me. “There,” he said. “You got your wish to visit your sister.”
After all these years, I cannot recall if my brother was satisfied or frightened to see me in my hospital bed. He doesn’t remember squeezing Daddy’s back ointment onto his toothbrush. I have no memory of whether it was days or weeks before I was discharged. Those valentines comforted me when I was all alone. I remember reciting my nightly prayers in hospital, like Mummy had taught me.
I prayed for my
parents and every one of my siblings. I prayed for the boy across the
room. Included in my prayers were other children. ‘Jesus please
feed the children starving in Biafra, wherever that is’.
tender age of five I especially prayed for Meanie Nurse. ‘Please,
please for heaven’s sake, stop giving me peas. I can be a good
girl, if you stop giving me peas.’